Our top priority remains the protection of VA’s specialized systems of care for disabled veterans.
By David Zurfluh
Before you read my annual oral testimony for a veterans service organization legislative presentation to a joint session of the House and Senate Committees on Veterans Affairs, I want to say thank you to Paralyzed Veterans of America’s (PVA) national Board of Directors, executive committee, chapters, staff and, most importantly, its members.
It has been a true honor to represent PVA in front of the U.S. Congress. The first time I testified was terrifying. The times in between were less terrifying, and this last one, I found myself relishing one final opportunity and the experience of the moment.
I want to thank PVA staff who helped me the last four years with testimony and fine-tuning my words, including everyone in the PVA Government Relations Department and Communications Department, along with PVA Deputy Executive Director Shaun Castle and PVA Executive Director Carl Blake (also known as “The Spanish Inquisition”). I would also like to thank the executive committee and members who attended in person over the years and virtually this year.
On another note, I will be diving into PVA history this month, especially the testimony from PVA founding leader and California Chapter leader Fred Smead, who testified in front of the House Veterans Committee on May 16, 1946, in support of a bill to extend benefits to hospitalized veterans.
This Memorial Day, I’ll reflect on family, friends and PVA members who died and those who paid the ultimate sacrifice for our country. I’ll also reflect on PVA’s founding fathers and mothers, whose efforts to improve PVA members’ lives and secure benefits may sometimes be taken for granted by veterans with spinal-cord injuries or disorders (SCI/D).
I, for one, will not forget their efforts and will pay homage to them privately this Memorial Day. I hope you will do the same.
I now present to you my final oral testimony as your PVA national president, which was delivered to the Veterans Affairs committees virtually March 4.
“Chairman [Jon] Tester, Chairman [Mark] Takano and members of the committees, I appreciate the opportunity to speak with you this morning on behalf of the tens of thousands of veterans with spinal-cord injuries and disorders who depend heavily on the benefits and health care available through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). This week, advocates from our 33 chapters have been meeting virtually with their members of Congress to educate them about the issues of concern for paralyzed veterans.
“Our top priority remains the protection of VA’s specialized systems of care for catastrophically disabled veterans. We firmly believe VA is the best provider of health care for veterans with spinal-cord injuries and disorders, or SCI/D. The VA’s SCI/D system of care provides a coordinated, lifelong continuum of services for veterans that has significantly increased our lifespans and is not replicated in the private sector.
“COVID-19 has reinforced our belief in this system. VA has done a good job minimizing the pandemic’s impact for veterans who are inpatients in one of VA’s 25 SCI/D facilities and six SCI/D long-term care centers. VA has kept infections of inpatients and staff to a minimum and stepped up countermeasures to protect this extremely vulnerable population.
“Our principal concern is vaccinating all SCI/D veterans and their caregivers against the virus. We are pleased that VA policy now prioritizes vaccinations for all veterans with SCI/D and urge VA to continue to promote expedited access to the vaccine for caregivers through state and local partnerships. We also urge Congress to provide VA with the authority to directly vaccinate a wider range of caregivers.
“Staffing also remains an ever-present concern, and we urge Congress to provide enough funding for VA to reform its hiring practices and hire additional personnel to meet demand for services in the SCI/D system of care and ensure the positions, pay and other incentives they offer are competitive with the private sector.
“If VA is allowed to underfund the system and understaff its facilities, their capacity to treat veterans will be diminished and could lead to the closure of facilities and reductions in services offered to them.
“Right now, we are extremely concerned about efforts to permanently reduce inpatient beds in some SCI/D centers, including at facilities that provide specialized long-term care. The capacity of the system to provide a continuum of care must be preserved and strengthened to meet the needs of paralyzed veterans.
“VA currently operates approximately 180 long-term care beds. When averaged across the country, that equates to about 3.6 beds available per state. Despite the need for more beds, VA is not requesting and Congress is not providing sufficient resources to meet the current demand. This deficiency must be addressed.
“In addition to adding specialized long-term care beds, PVA also supports expediting caregiver supports for catastrophically disabled veterans. Although Congress expanded access to VA’s comprehensive family caregiver program, VA did not begin the first phase of the expansion until October 1, 2020, which was one year behind schedule. VA has adequate resources to accept new enrollees and deliver program services; thus, Congress should direct VA to complete the expansion to veterans of all eras this October.
“Finally, PVA members seek greater access to adapted vehicle assistance. Access to an adapted vehicle is essential to their mobility and health. Because of the high cost to buy a replacement vehicle, veterans may retain one that is no longer reliable. We ask you to support HR 1361 and S 444. This bipartisan legislation would allow eligible veterans to receive an automobile allowance grant every 10 years for the purchase of an adapted vehicle.
“Thank you again for this opportunity to share our views and your ongoing commitment to veterans and their caregivers. The unique needs of catastrophically disabled veterans — from mental health needs to women veterans with SCI/D who are a growing, distinct subpopulation — must not be overlooked. I would be more than happy to answer any questions you may have.” n